Allowing 16 and 17-year-olds in Rhode Island to pre-register to vote has once again been a hot topic in the state's General Assembly since early January of this year. Legislation to implement this reform (Senate Bill 2081) was passed in the Senate on May 27th, after having passed in the House (House Bill 7106). Although the bill still has some procedural elements to complete, it seems almost certain that it will hit Gov. Carcieri's desk soon. Though he's twice vetoed the bill in the past, we hope he'll consider signing into law this time.
Here are a couple of things he should consider:
The Impact on Youth Voting: Allowing 16-year-olds to pre-register is definitely the starting point for increasing youth voter turnout, but it's the not end. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 80% of registered voters aged 18-24 actually voted in the last Presidential election, but when looking at all eligible 18-24 year-olds, less than 50% of them turned out to vote. If less than 50% of youth are interested enough in the political process to vote, how can we increase registration and participation rates?
As a first step, we need to keep laying the groundwork for increased registration by allowing 16-year-olds to pre-register to vote in all states. Currently, only 3 states have passed bills amending their electoral law. As FairVote's Right to Vote director, Adam Fogel, has pointed out time and time again, voting is a habit. If we can make registering to vote at 16 a social tradition, like getting your driver's license, it will become an institutionalized practice in the United States.
The Limits of Pre-Registration: However, universal registration on its own does not necessarily lead to heightened participation. Canada has universal voter registration – the government has agreements with the Canada Revenue Agency, Canada Post, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, provincial and territorial registrars of motor vehicles and vital statistics, and provincial electoral agencies to ensure that it always has an up-to-date voter list. Even so, youth voter turnout in Canadian federal elections is terrible – in 2004, 38% of Canadians aged 18-21 bothered to cast a ballot. That age bracket is obviously smaller than the one under discussion for the American system, but it conveys my point.
The Next Step: I believe that bills passed in state legislatures allowing 16-year-olds to vote should be accompanied by bills that mandate greater civic education in schools, one is not complete without the other. Too many youth are woefully uneducated about their political system, the candidates and the issues. As statistics have shown, those who have an understanding of the system (I am presupposing that those who are registered have at least a basic understanding), have a very high turnout rate.
The next step, it seems, is encouraging state legislatures to pass bills that allow 16-year-olds to pre-register, but include measures for voter education and youth engagement.